Plastic Threatens Human and Planetary Health

For the first time, world-leading researchers from the fields of healthcare, the ocean and the environment have collaborated to quantify plastic's considerable risks to all life on earth. The Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health presents a never-before-seen analysis showing plastic as a hazard at every stage of its life cycle.

The commission’s key findings reveal:

  • Plastic causes disease, impairment, and premature mortality at every stage of its life cycle, with the health repercussions disproportionately affecting vulnerable, low-income, minority communities, particularly children.
  • Toxic chemicals that are added to plastic and routinely detected in people are, amongst others, known to increase the risk of miscarriage, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancers.
  • Plastic waste is ubiquitous, with the ocean, on which we depend for oxygen, food & livelihoods, suffering beyond measure, with micro- and nano plastics particles contaminating the water and the sea floor and entering the marine food chain.

The Commission concludes that current plastic production, use, and disposal patterns are not sustainable and are responsible for significant harm to human health, the environment, and the economy, as well as deep societal injustices. It recommends establishing health-protective standards for plastic chemicals under the Global Plastics Treaty, requiring testing all polymers and plastics chemicals for toxicity before entering markets, as well as post-market surveillance.

Professor Sarah Dunlop, co-author and Head of Plastics and Human Health at Minderoo Foundation, believes we are finally opening the eyes of the world to the harms caused by some plastics. “These findings put us on an unequivocal path to demand the banning or severely restricting of unnecessary, avoidable, and problematic plastic items, many of which contain hazardous chemicals with links to horrific harm to people and the planet. In 2015, 4% of fossil fuel was used to make plastic and, by 2050, this is predicted to increase to 20%. Even worse, as fossil fuel production continues to soar, so will the profound impacts we already see increase even more.”

The Commission urges that a cap on global plastic production be a defining feature of the Global Plastics Treaty, and that the Treaty continues its focus beyond marine litter to address the impacts of plastics across the entire life cycle, including the many thousands of chemicals incorporated into plastics and the human health impacts. “We have to deal with both what we can see and what we can’t,” said Professor Dunlop.

As well as informing policymakers, the work will educate physicians, nurses, public health workers, and the global public about the full magnitude of plastics’ hazards, which put the disadvantaged and poor, as well as women and children, at particularly high risk.

Dr Philip Landrigan, Director of the Global Observatory on Planetary Health at Boston College, has spent a lifetime studying the effects of harmful chemicals on children’s brain development and neurological systems and is particularly concerned about the lack of progress made by regulators. “Very few details about the identity, chemical makeup, and potential toxicity of plastic chemicals are disclosed by plastic producers, and in most countries, they are under no legal obligation to do so.

“Out of sight should not mean out of mind. If there were warnings on plastic products stating that their usage could lead to attention deficit disorders, and intelligence quotient (IQ) loss, most consumers would think twice before exposing their children to their production, use, and disposal. But, this is the uncomfortable truth about many chemicals used in plastics, which are especially dangerous for infants in the womb, young children, and pregnant women, and can no longer be ignored,” said Dr Landrigan.

While the harm to human health might be a new notion for some, the oceanographic and marine biology communities have been acutely aware of plastic’s negative environmental impacts for many decades. Yet despite a significant head start, the Commission’s findings reveal a greater need for better measurement and monitoring of the effects of plastic chemicals on marine species, and the authors also uncover a major knowledge gap concerning the ingestion of micro- and nano-plastic particles (MNPs).

Dr Hervé Raps, Physician Delegate for Research at Centre Scientifique de Monaco, emphasises the need to fully understand the impacts of marine plastic pollution. “Plastic waste endangers the ocean ecosystems upon which all humanity depends for food, oxygen, livelihood, and well-being”.

“Besides their intrinsic effects, plastics can also be a vector for potentially pathogenic microorganisms and other chemicals adsorbed from polluted water. And alongside the new findings of this report, linking toxic chemicals to human harms, this is not the time to slow down our understanding of the ocean - the lungs of the Earth,” said Dr Raps.

A slew of recommendations by the Commission includes funding to promote the development of technologies for detecting smaller MNPs in the environment and human tissue to adequately assess the presence and quantity of these particles. In addition, mandated systematic biomonitoring and post-market surveillance of plastic chemical exposures and their health effects in human populations are required, as is already customary in the pharmaceutical and food industries.

The Commission found that plastic accounts for an estimated 4-5% of all greenhouse gas emissions across its lifecycle, equivalent to emissions from Russia, making it a large-scale contributor to climate change. The study also calculated the entire cost of the health repercussions of plastics production to be US$250 billion in a twelve-month period, which is more than the GDP of New Zealand or Finland in 2015, the year the data were collected. Health costs for just 3 specific plastic chemicals in the US alone in 2015 amounted to US$920 billion. The research also noted that the ubiquity of fast food and discount stores in poorer communities increased exposure to plastic packaging, products, and associated chemicals and impacts.

The positive news is that the Commission reports that many of plastics’ harms can be avoided via better production practices, alternative design, less toxic chemicals, and decreased consumption. Regulation has also been shown to play a positive role in the EU, where polybrominated biphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have been regulated for many years and show decreased impacts on human productivity losses (intellectual disability and lost IQ) when compared to populations tested in the US.

While there are still knowledge gaps and uncertainties regarding the full extent of the harms caused by plastics, the evidence provided by the Commission demonstrates unequivocally that these harms are already substantial and will only grow in magnitude and severity as plastic production relentlessly increases. The Commission calls for immediate and effective intervention.

Access the full manuscript here from 0300 ET / 0900 CET, Tuesday, 21st March 2023. Digital Assets available here

The Minderoo-Monaco Commission, launching during Monaco Ocean Week, was formed to break down the silos in research on multiple hazards that plastic poses to human health, from extraction of its fossil carbon feedstocks through its everyday use, to its leakage and disposal into the environment. Its 48 authors, which include members from the Global Observatory on Planetary Health at Boston College, the Centre Scientifique de Monacos Medical and Marine Biology departments, and the Plastics and Human Health team at Minderoo Foundation, have presented a detailed analysis of plasticsimpacts across their life cycle on human health, the global environment, the economy, and vulnerable populations.

Media Contacts

Minderoo Foundation

Stephen Gaisford
M +44 (0)7476 695 696 / +61 (0)484 396 852 E [email protected]

Michael Best
M +61 (0)407 260 828 E [email protected]

Minderoo Foundation is a modern philanthropic organisation seeking to break down barriers, innovate and drive positive, lasting change. Ed Hayward Philip Gloudemans

Boston College

Ed Hayward [email protected]

Philip Gloudemans [email protected]

Boston College established the Global Observatory on Planetary Health to track efforts to control and prevent pollution-related diseases.

Centre Scientifique de Monaco

Thierry Apparu
M +33 620 720 709
E [email protected]

Centre Scientifique de Monaco (CSM) is dedicated to scientific research, focusing on environmental stresses on marine animals and humans.